Southern Baptists rejoice because their denomination appears nowhere in the recent US investigation into federally-funded abuse of Native Americans. But there are reasons why they weren't part of it, and none of them merit rejoicing.
Recently, the United States government finished the first part of its investigation into federally-funded boarding schools that abused Native Americans. As you might expect, it’s a dark read. Primarily, it reveals that for 150 years, the American government used these schools to systematically destroy Native Americans’ culture. Worse, the government sought to destroy that culture so they could more easily take more land from Native Americans. But the good folks at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) took heart: nobody from their denomination was involved anywhere in this report!
But that’s not a reason to rejoice. There are a couple of good reasons why the SBC wasn’t involved in the report. And those reasons do not say good things about the SBC as a whole. It seems that Southern Baptists don’t even seem to understand what this report was even about.
(Author’s note: References to “the abuse report” mean the United States government’s recently-released report, titled “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report.” By now, there’ve been so many Christian abuse reports that we must specify! Similarly, references to “the SBC resolution” mean the resolution passed at the 2022 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, titled “On Religious Liberty, Forced Conversion, and the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report.”
A resolution about Native Americans that flew under the radar
We’re still waiting for the SBC’s 2022 Annual Report, but while we wait, you can catch up on all the past ones. That report will tell us all of the party business that occurred at their recent big Annual Meeting.
But we’re still getting little tidbits of information about what happened there. A recent story from Christianity Today represents one such titbit. They titled it “Native American Pastor Leads Southern Baptists to Decry Forced Conversions.”
In the story, we learn that, yes indeed, a Native American pastor named Mike Keahbone put forth a resolution decrying the American government’s use of abusive “Federal Indian boarding schools” to destroy Native Americans’ culture and steal their land. We all learned about this shocking abuse a couple of months ago in May.
From Christians’ perspective, the report’s news goes from bad to unthinkably worse, though: about half of these schools were operated by Christian groups:
Initial investigation results show that approximately 50 percent of Federal Indian boarding schools may have received support or involvement from a religious institution or organization, including funding, infrastructure, and personnel. As the U.S. Senate has recognized, funds from the 1819 Civilization Fund “were apportioned among those societies and individuals—usually missionary organizations—that had been prominent in the effort to ‘civilize’ the Indians.”13 The Federal Government at times paid religious institutions and organizations on a per capita basis for Indian children to enter the Federal Indian boarding schools that these institutions and organizations groups operated.Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, May 2022, p. 7. The footnote refers to: “Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Indian Education: A National Tragedy – A National Challenge, S. Rep. No. 91-501 at 143 (1969) [hereinafter Kennedy Report].”
But don’t worry: The SBC totally and without reservations (SWIDT?) condemns this abuse. Officially. Because it involved forcible conversions.
The SBC resolution mostly addresses “forced conversions” of Native Americans
Here is a link to the full text of the SBC resolution discussed in that Christianity Today article. It’s called: “On Religious Liberty, Forced Conversion, and the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report.” On page 53 of the report, we see that these schools sought to “compel” their students to “adopt western practices and Christianity.” So yes, forced conversion was indeed happening.
The abuse report itself says the word “conversion” only once (and “convert,” not at all), in the context of missionary-operated schools in Hawaii. These schools specifically sought to destroy the language of Native Hawaiians and “promote Christian conversion.”
(Incidentally, these particular missionaries associated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which draws members from various Reformed (Calvinist) denominations. With federal money and our government’s blessing, this group sent many packs of missionaries to Hawaii. Also, I see that my assessment of this type of Christian continues to hold true.)
Once unleashed on Native Americans everywhere, the abuse report reveals that Christian groups did not hold back. They were ruthless, vicious, and single-focused.
However, the report doesn’t focus on forced conversions much at all. It focuses instead on the systematic, intentional destruction of Native American culture. It then ties this destruction to United States leaders’ desire to steal yet more land from Native Americans.
Entirely the wrong takeaway from the abuse report
Interestingly, the pastor in that Christianity Today article, Mike Keahbone, understands perfectly well why forced conversions occurred. As he said:
You got to see reports on forced conversion, to go along with the forced assimilation, and it just broke my heart. . . .
It was noted in the report why we were even dealing with forced assimilation, and the primary culprit was that the government wanted it to be easier to take Native American lands. The way that they could do that was to [first] drive them and force them off their lands, and [then] they targeted children. They wanted to limit their education and limit their capability. . . .
The ugliness and the heart behind it—and the strategic movements of it—is an awful ugly part of our history.Mike Keahbone in Christianity Today
But somehow, none of that went into the resolution itself.
Yet again, we can count on the SBC to take the exact wrong lesson from anything! Not once, not anywhere in the resolution passed this year will we find a single flickering of awareness about that stolen land. Indeed, if a random person read the SBC’s resolution, they’d come away thinking that the whole entire goal of the United States government was simply converting Native Americans to Christianity.
And that’s apparently just fine to the SBC. Just these particular methods weren’t okay.
Now let’s scope out the SBC’s self-congratulations for not being part of this specific abuse against Native Americans
In that Christianity Today article, Mike Keahbone says that after he read the abuse report, he contacted Brent Leatherwood. Leatherwood is the acting president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). (The SBC’s leaders drove out its previous president, Russell Moore, for acting like the SBC’s stated goals were actually their real goals.)
And oh wow! Leatherwood was already checking out the report!
I’m not surprised. As the acting president of an SBC group devoted, at least overtly, to how Southern Baptists engage with the heathen world around them, he’d obviously want to know right away if the report contained any further damage to the SBC brand.
It does not mention the SBC at all, which seems to come as a vast relief to both Leatherwood and Keahbone. But Keahbone invoked some powerful Christianese to describe his motivations for putting forth that SBC resolution:
It turns out that as far as denominations go, Southern Baptists were not named in the report, but I still had a burden on my heart to acknowledge it.Mike Keahbone in Christianity Today
So, there you go. He simply had to raise this resolution! Jesus told him to do it!
Captain Cassidy’s Christianese 101: Burdens
In Christianese, a burden is a very Jesus-flavored motivation to do something specific. Christians think Jesus himself hands out burdens, making them marching orders straight from their god. Once given a burden, Christians must carry it out. Any person or force getting in the way of a burden is, obviously, opposing Jesus and his ineffable plan. Often but not always, a burden relates to ministry or evangelism from the personal level to the institutional.
Usage varies, but the example in the Christianity Today article is quite characteristic: “I still had a burden on my heart to acknowledge [the abuse report].” Others include:
- 1974, from Watchman Nee’s Testimony: “By the end of 1922 I had a burden to publish a magazine. . .”
- Unknown date, regarding a 10-year-old boy: “I have such a burden for Sylas today.”
- Probably 2020, from Cru’s advice on figuring out your burden: “Use the following questions to discover your unique burden—that thing or cause or people group that God wants you to focus on in ministry.”
- 2022, from a Creationist: “I had a burden to help people understand that Genesis is the foundation of all doctrine. . .”
- 2022, from a pastor’s review of Turning Red: “And we [Christians] ignore [offensive stuff], and that’s really why I felt a burden to put the word out about this movie.”
The term apparently derives from a Hebrew word used in the Bible. That said, I had no idea, when I was Christian myself, why Christians used it. I doubt many Christians today understand why, either, nor that it’s been used since the early-mid 1800s to mean a Jesus-flavored motivation, as seen here in 1828. (“Felt a burden” became popular a bit later.)
See also: having a heart for X. This is like a burden, but not as onerous. Christians might say that someone has a heart for children to explain that person’s desire to volunteer with Sunday School, or having a heart for missions to explain why someone gives so much money to missionaries. That opinion is still thought to come from Jesus, of course.
Getting ahead of potential and likely accusations
In several places, Mike Keahbone stresses that his motivations are pure for raising the resolution at the Annual Meeting. He’s not “asking for reparations,” “trying to throw around racial cards,” or “trying to look for some sort of handout.” It’s heartbreaking to know that he is quite wise to immediately get ahead of those accusations. As a member of a person-of-color (POC) group, he must know very well that those are indeed the accusations many SBC members will raise in response to his resolution. He deployed their own dog whistle terms here.
In another place, Keahbone seeks to link his resolution to the SBC’s recent struggles with racism. As he says:
I thought it would be really important for us as a convention, because of our history in dealing with racial reconciliation, especially Black and white reconciliation.Mike Keahbone in Christianity Today
Here and elsewhere, he links his resolution to the SBC’s decline, in that the denomination’s absence from the abuse report and their firm support of Native Americans in the wake of the report’s release will help their sales with the Native American demographic.
SBC: Forced conversions are obviously very bad, but Native Americans do definitely need to convert
It probably wouldn’t surprise anybody to know that Native Americans are, as a group, not especially enthused about Christians’ attempts to convert them. In the Christianity Today article, we get a good helping of information about why.
The boarding schools mentioned in the abuse report are a very well-known quantity to Native Americans. Even Mike Keahbone himself has family members who were forced into these schools and suffered in them. The memory of those schools, along with other efforts by the United States to eradicate Native Americans’ culture, rightly burns in Native Americans’ minds even today. So when Christians roll up to them with the Jesus sales pitch, often these pitches get rejected out of hand. As Keahbone tells us:
The reality is, forced conversions are a primary reason why it’s so difficult to share the gospel with Native American people. It is primarily why Native Americans call Christianity “white man’s religion,” and it’s not because they don’t understand that Jesus was Jewish, that he was a Galilean—it’s not about that at all. It’s because of Native Americans’ experience with white culture, forced conversion, and forced assimilation that has built a huge barrier between Native Americans and the gospel.Mike Keahbone in Christianity Today
He also touches on why forced conversions happened in the first place, of course. He completely understands and discusses the motivation behind all this mistreatment. So, this resolution is, first and foremost, an attempt to repair Christianity’s beyond-tainted brand with Native Americans:
As a Native American, when I’m sharing the gospel with Native American people, to be able to say, “We were never a part of that movement; we were never a part of forced conversion,” that’s a big deal.Mike Keahbone in Christianity Today
See? That wasn’t the SBC! Whatever argument you have with those boarding schools, we weren’t even there! You can totally trust the SBC!
Why this isn’t actually a selling point for the SBC
First and foremost, the SBC wasn’t really involved in the Federal Indian boarding school system because they either didn’t exist yet or had barely begun their existence as a denomination. The SBC came into existence in 1845. According to the abuse report itself (p. 6), this system operated between 1819 and 1969. Some of the schools themselves operated as early as 1801, but federal money only flowed to them between those dates.
The system seems to have hit its heyday around the 1880s, so I pulled up the 1880 SBC Annual Report (which covers the previous year, as all Annual Reports do). There, I see numerous references to “Indian schools” and churches in “Indian territories.” On page 17 of the PDF (15 in the document), the SBC lumps Native Americans in with “the Chinese in California.” Since both groups are considered foreign to Americans, they assert, they seek to create a proto-North American Mission Board (NAMB) to seek conversions from both groups.
Ominously, on p. 23 of the PDF (21 in the document), I see references to starting a “manual labor school” in Indian Missions. These get discussed in the abuse report as well, and never in glowing terms. On p. 8 of the abuse report, we learn that federally-funded boarding schools focused on manual labor skills that were often “irrelevant to the industrial U.S. economy, further disrupting Tribal economics.” Worse, the schools used draconian and cruel punishment even on young children.
These schools also already existed before federal money flowed. All that changed is who paid the so-called teachers and missionaries.
If the SBC opened schools forcing manual labor on Native Americans, I see no reason whatsoever why they wouldn’t also engage in the same behavior as other Christian groups operating in this area.
All this report shows us is that the SBC wasn’t taking government money for schools forcing manual labor on Native Americans. Not that it had no schools there at all.
Where the SBC goes, there follow sex abuse scandals
I noticed at least one sex abuse scandal erupting in the SBC’s ministry ranks in Native American areas.
Namely, consider the case of Roy Edward Williams. He actually got an entry in that internal SBC pastoral-predators database they just released. For years, he preached in Native American churches—and preyed on children. In 2021, a federal grand jury indicted him on five counts of coercion and enticement of a minor in Indian Country, along with other associated counts. The counts describe predation that allegedly occurred between 2002 and 2018. Though Williams wasn’t a formal pastor, he was a member of an SBC church and “preached on occasion,” according to the internal abuse database.
Gee, it’s just too bad that the SBC fails entirely to have any kind of ministerial credentialing process! You know, like almost every other denomination does!
So yes, the SBC does have tentacles reaching into Native Americans’ communities. And yes, the abuse scandal certainly didn’t fail to reach just as far. The fact that SBC leaders just don’t see these communities as “white fields ready unto harvest,” as the awful Christianese goes, is probably all that’s kept them from figuring prominently in the abuse report.
Native Americans are quite right to distrust this denomination, just as they clearly distrust others. If the SBC’s gaze swivels around to their people, misery and abuse will surely follow.
There are no heroes in the SBC, only masked villains
These days, SBC is (rightly) reeling and in tatters over its denomination-wide abuse scandal. That scandal reaches across the entire breadth of the denomination. It touches every single level of membership and leadership, right to the very uppermost levels of power. Every single big name in the denomination seems to have been involved at some level, either by committing predation themselves, or else by covering up another person’s predation.
And that most certainly includes the SBC leaders talking the loudest about supporting abuse victims and pushing the most for abuse reforms, as well as the political faction making the same calls.
(The Follies of the Pretend Progressives: J.D. Greear egregiously mishandled a related situation; Russell Moore covered up racism and sexism in his fellow big-name leaders, at least till he could release his receipts to aid his own faction. Also, Willy Rice, this same faction’s previous SBC presidential candidate this year, lost his nomination due to hiring a known sex abuser.)
I now know of at least one SBC seminary student who entirely deconverted and left seminary over this scandal. And I’m sure I’ll hear many similar stories in the years to come. This scandal is to the SBC what the child-rape scandal has been to the Catholic Church, and for the same reasons.
A total misread of The Big Problem Here
Evangelicals have this annoying habit of deciding what The Big Problem Here really is, then pursuing a solution they think will solve it. They completely miss the point by focusing on the exact wrong things, then create non-solutions that have zero chance of affecting even the vastly oversimplified The Big Problem Here that they’ve misidentified.
You will never see this habit illustrated more clearly than in their various non-solutions for their decline.
For anyone in the SBC to see a lack of SBC names in a horrifying abuse report, then to see The Big Problem Here as one of forced conversion, then to pass a big resolution decrying forced conversions while ignoring the reason why those conversions happened, even when an actual Native American (who is also the person who made that resolution to begin with) does interviews talking about that reason, well, it all smacks of some serious misreads.
All that said, though, I do think it was wise of Mike Keahbone to package his actual painful truths with an insistence that accepting the resolution will totes help sales to Native Americans.
Even if Keahbone himself fully believes this, it won’t. Decrying forced conversions won’t actually help sales at all. And not just because condemning forced conversions in the absence of condemnation of why they happened is kind of a slap in the face.
No, the main reason is because the SBC doesn’t actually mind using powers of coercion.
Coercion takes many forms
For one thing, the SBC is right now, as we speak, trying to sneak their way into the minds and hearts of children without their parents’ knowledge or consent. They must, because they know that if kids reach age 14 without having been indoctrinated, then their chances of conversion are very slim. (Evangelicals call this fact the 4-14 window.)
Evangelicals generally also hold cultural control over vast swathes of the United States. In those areas, deconversion makes apostates a target, and dissent merits the tribe’s full wrath. Back in 2014, the SBC released a report that reveals that their only growing baptism demographic was children aged five and under. (And yes, they also crafted five non-solutions to address The Big Problems Here that they identified then.) If that fact had changed at all between then and now, they’d have never shut up about it.
One might also mildly, gently mention that the SBC’s beloved culture wars are very little else than a naked attempt to force rules that they don’t even follow onto people who aren’t even part of their belief system.
So, yes. They’re all for coercion itself. Only one facet of coercion looks like forced conversions. It contains many others, including stuff the SBC is all for doing. They’re not about to stop doing all that stuff. But sure! They’ll step around this one particular pile of horse-puckey that they didn’t push out themselves and condemn it, while keeping all the rest of their mess piled up in their barn to push onto everyone else.
Maybe it’ll work. Maybe Jesus will return. Who knows what might happen?